WordPress Site Hacked: How to Fix and Prevent Future Attacks

April 24, 2023 in WordPress Security

As the most popular content management system, WordPress provides exciting opportunities to develop content and attract visitors exactly as you see fit. Its unique blend of freedom and guidance may be compelling, but there's a definite downside: WordPress can be shockingly vulnerable to attacks.

If your WordPress site has been targeted, you face a true mess: compromised users, degraded performance, or even search engine blacklisting. Thankfully, there are plenty of resources that can help you mitigate these attacks and even prevent future issues.

Common WordPress vulnerabilities

WordPress vulnerabilities take every form imaginable. Given the open-source nature of WordPress and its PHP scripting language, threats emerge on a regular basis. It can be difficult even for well-informed administrators to keep track of every threat facing the WordPress core and files in general.

To illustrate the far-reaching nature of today's greatest vulnerabilities (and how they contribute to attacks), we've highlighted a few of the most common issues below:

Weak passwords

Most users are well aware of the importance of strong passwords, and yet, when given the opportunity, they still opt for simple, easy-to-guess passwords that make their accounts vulnerable to brute-force attacks. The scope of this problem should not be underestimated; the 2022 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report reveals that stolen credentials are responsible for nearly half of today's attacks.

Out-of-date software

The WordPress themes and plugins that make the platform so compelling also form its riskiest elements. Both these and WordPress itself need to be updated regularly to ensure that they're ready to face DDOS attacks, phishing, spam emails, and the full gamut of security vulnerabilities.

Plugin and theme backdoors

Almost 100 WordPress themes and plugins were the victim of a PHP backdoor hack in January 2023, further illustrating the need for more than just the standard WordPress security plugin and other barebones measures. The very nature of these backdoor attacks — named for intruders who sneak in through the proverbial “backdoor” and go unnoticed in the system — makes them hard to detect.

Vulnerable file permissions

Too often, users completing the initial WordPress installation fail to ensure that important files and folders have the proper permissions attached to them. Core files such as the wp-config.php file and index.php file — as well as the wp-content folder — are particularly prone to attacks.

Insecure hosting provider

Hosting environments play a huge role in general website security. Often, however, administrators rely on band-aid approaches, rather than fixing the crux of the issue: a poor hosting solution that fails to protect individual websites. This is a common point of concern with shared hosting which, although affordable, is prone to security problems.

Signs of a hacked WordPress site

If you're actively dealing with any of the issues outlined above, you can almost certainly expect to be hacked at some point. Some attacks will be obvious, but many cybercriminals are now incredibly insidious, to the point that you may never uncover the issue — even if it causes significant damage to your WordPress website.

Website behaving strangely

Sometimes, it's difficult to discern why, exactly, you're suspicious — something just feels off. In these situations, it's best to trust your intuition. If your site doesn't appear to be operating as per usual, you need to know why. Even if it turns out that you aren't in the midst of a WordPress attack, you may gain valuable insights into performance or design issues that help you improve your site.

Unexpected redirects

Some WordPress attacks center around redirects, which send website visitors to spam sites. This may occur as they're sent to new destinations via links, although it's also possible to experience redirects from search engine results pages. Such redirects typically result from targeted malware. If not addressed promptly, these malicious redirects could result in flagged results or even a blacklisting from Google.

Spammy on-site content

While malicious redirects lead to spam content on outside websites, it's also possible for spam to take over your actual WordPress site. This can involve compromised plugins or themes, so it's important to always be vigilant when selecting and moving forward with downloads.

Warnings from Google or web host

Few things can scare away website visitors faster than seeing Google’s dreaded “this site may be hacked” warning message. This appears when Google detects suspicious activity, warning visitors that while they can still access the site, they should do so at their own risk. This is often a sign of a hack and also, a warning that a prompt response is crucial — otherwise, the long-term impact on your SEO could prove devastating.

Unexplained accessibility issues

Website administrators and users instinctively know when their pages aren't working as per usual. Popup ads that were never an issue before can turn a useful WordPress site into something completely unreadable. Brute force intrusion attempts can also slow down the entire browsing experience, leaving users struggling to access desired content or extra willing to head elsewhere.

Immediate actions to take

A prompt response can make all the difference as you strive to limit the effects of a WordPress attack. To prevent long-term damage, take these actions as soon as possible:

Use maintenance mode

Don't subject legitimate users to an obviously broken website. WordPress offers a Maintenance Mode solution that displays an official-looking notice to visitors. While Maintenance Mode is typically associated with website redesigns or WordPress updates, it's also a viable option as you tackle security concerns. During updates, Maintenance Mode involves a .maintenance file, but it's also possible to achieve this end by applying a strategically designed plugin.

Change all passwords

In the aftermath of a WordPress hack, you cannot feel confident in the quality of your password protection unless you change all of them. From there, consider leveling up requirements so that users opt for stronger passwords in the future. This may mean expanding the length or requiring numerals, special characters, and upper plus lowercase letters.

Add a password expiration policy to encourage users to change passwords on a regular basis; this can further limit opportunities for malicious players to gain access.

Contact the hosting provider

If you're not feeling confident in your hosting provider, don't hesitate to get in touch. This could provide valuable insight into the source of the attack, as these can originate from shared hosting providers. Keep in mind that the hosting environment could have played a key role in the hack, so it may be time to switch to a new hosting solution.

Remove all malicious code

WordPress malware removal can be a time-consuming process, but it absolutely cannot be avoided. While manual removal is possible, it's even better to use a trusted malware scanner and removal solution. This process will eliminate malware and also rid you of suspicious items that have been revealed in the publicly visible source code.

Check admin accounts

Audit permissions and admin accounts to limit the number of people who have access to core files and the WordPress dashboard. This is a prime area to apply the rule of least privilege, which mandates that administrative access should only be granted when and where it is absolutely essential.

Restore from a clean backup

The longer your website remains compromised or inaccessible, the more your reputation suffers and the worse the impact will be on your bottom line. Thankfully, the latest version of your WordPress site can be restored if it was properly backed up. This will let you turn the clock back and revert to full functionality.

Repair immediately

Repairing and replacing core files and removing bad code from the wp-config.php file will go a long way toward restoring the functionality of your site. While manual fixes are available, professional services will provide a swifter and more thorough response, as well as ongoing assistance moving forward. Top options include SiteLock 911 and SiteLock 911 Plus.

Scan computers for malware

If your WordPress site was compromised, there’s a good chance the computers being used to maintain it have been as well. Scan all computers for malware to ensure that no further issues arise. Antivirus solutions may also prove necessary, as sophisticated cybercriminals have discovered that they can blend viruses and other forms of malware to form extra-dangerous attacks.

Security measures after an attack

Once you've suffered an attack, you'll be extra eager to prevent future issues. The steps you take now can limit the potential for additional interference.

Update WordPress and plugins

Outdated WordPress themes and plugins are among the most common attack vectors, but this is another vulnerability that can be relatively easy (albeit, potentially time-consuming) to fix. The WordPress admin dashboard provides insight into available updates. The WordPress Site Health tool can also be a valuable resource.

Don't forget to check the plugins or themes tabs from the wp-admin area, as these highlight both current versions and potential updates. If you require a full WordPress update, you can do so with help from the simple one-click Update Now button. Otherwise, FTP is a viable option for updating WordPress.

Clean sitemap and resubmit to Google

Website cleanup is one of the most dreaded aspects of the typical WordPress attack response, but it's also the most necessary. Begin by creating a backup, followed by a thorough overview of your website’s current problems. Once this is complete, you can use the Google Search Console to have Google recrawl the URLs in your sitemap; this will help ensure the now clean pages show up in the search engine results.

Reinstall WordPress if compromised

When in doubt, a full reinstall should provide peace of mind. There are several different ways to accomplish this, including FTP or the official 5-Minute WordPress installation process.

Clean out hacked database

Access the phpMyAdmin dashboard to clean out any malicious data. Cleaning the data can be completed manually, but services such as SiteLock 911 and SiteLock 911 Plus provide a more reliable and swift means of cleansing, scrubbing, or validating compromised databases.

Install a web app firewall

A web app firewall is non-negotiable for modern WordPress sites. Find a reputable firewall provider to limit unauthorized access. This should act as a trusted gatekeeper, providing a strong layer of security for your WordPress site.

Limit login attempts

Repeated logins are often a tell-tale sign of brute force efforts. While strong passwords are essential, you can also stop hackers in their tracks by limiting how many times they can try to log in.

Use two-factor authentication

These days, passwords alone are often not enough to keep your site secure. Instead, opt for two-factor authentication, which combines traditional passwords with other means of verification.

Implement SSL encryption

Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption establishes secure connections between clients and servers. This prevents sensitive data from being accessed by third parties. Once the protected data has reached its final destination, it can be decrypted and accessed by authorized parties.

Acquiring an SSL certificate is a must; this will enable HTTPS. There are multiple types of SSL certificates, so think carefully about what you want to accomplish before you seek one for your WordPress site. Depending on your situation, you may be able to secure this via your web host or from a Certificate Authority.

Regularly backup your site

In the immediate aftermath of a breach, you may realize that your previous backup strategy was not sufficient. At a minimum, you need weekly WordPress backups to ensure that your website is swiftly returned to a somewhat recent status. Daily backups are far better, however. The sooner you up your backup game, the better.

If you're like many administrators, you cannot possibly hope to handle daily backups all on your own. Thankfully, this process can be outsourced to a security service, which can handle backups on your behalf. This will ensure that should the worst-case scenario arise, you'll be prepared with a recent backup.

Preventing future security issues

Many of the strategies outlined above will go a long way toward making your WordPress site sufficiently secure. Additional ongoing preventative measures worth taking include:

Ensure passwords are secured

Strong passwords are the bare minimum of any proper security strategy. Once you've reset them all, continue to emphasize password security to prevent future breaches.

Keep everything updated

Updates may be top of mind in the immediate aftermath of a hack, but it's unfortunately typical to pay less and less attention to these over time. Without a clearly defined process for updating (or outside help), you risk once again falling behind and leaving your WordPress site vulnerable to new hazards.

Begin by scheduling a specific time each week or month to review updates. Consider implementing a site manager so you can more easily keep track of these. Managed hosts and third-party maintenance services can also be valuable.

Use trusted themes and plugins

While you may have been haphazard in your approach to selecting plugins or themes in the past, you can prevent future issues by vetting these more carefully. Only add plugins and themes that you're confident you need — and don't forget to do your research.

Delete unused plugins and themes

Do you actually make full use of all WordPress plugins and themes? Chances are, some are either outdated or unused. Delete these promptly, as every extra plugin or theme exposes your site to additional risks.

Protect yourself from malware

WordPress malware and vulnerability scanning is non-negotiable, as this provides much-needed insight into how your website is functioning and where malicious players are able to gain access. Look to a dedicated malware scanning service to provide trusted assistance and peace of mind.

Find a reputable hosting company

If you're not happy with the quality of your hosting environment, you're always welcome to change. A different hosting setup could protect your WordPress website from future attacks.

Protect your WordPress site with SiteLock

Many WordPress attacks are avoidable, but it takes a lot of effort to protect your site. Don't go it alone; work with a trusted WordPress security solution to keep today's top cybersecurity threats at bay. Whether it's a brute force attack, backdoor intrusion, or malware infection, SiteLock can keep attackers at bay. Check out our plans or reach out for more information.

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